"The Crosby stuff? I like what Sash said," Laich says. "There's a huge rivalry between us and Pittsburgh, and he wants to put himself on the map. Everybody talks about Ovechkin-Crosby-[Pittsburgh's Evgeni] Malkin. Well, Alex Semin can be mentioned with those guys. It's a good challenge he put out there, and we're going to back him. Sash is beginning to feel passionate about this hockey team."
FOLLOWING THREE middling-to-good years, Semin's spark emerged late last season after a high-ankle sprain healed and after G.M. George McPhee got Fedorov from Columbus at the Feb. 26 trade deadline. McPhee was looking at the 38-year-old simply as a veteran with some tread left on his tires. "I didn't really think about Sergei's leadership," McPhee says of Fedorov, who has scored more NHL goals than any other Russian. "I didn't anticipate his impact on Semin." With Fedorov as a mentor and often a linemate for the final 18 games, Semin scored seven goals. He had eight points in Washington's seven-game first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia, and a few weeks later he turned in a superb world championship, scoring twice and adding an assist in Russia's gold medal win over Canada.
"He's been practicing harder, going out for optionals. The difference this season is noticeable," Boudreau says. "Sasha's a guy who can stop you from coaching. You just watch. He's stickhandling, stickhandling ... oh, wow, look at that. He's got moves that turn you into a fan."
Semin's signature is the curl-and-drag, in which he cradles the puck near the tip of his blade, then drags it toward his body, either going around an off-balance defenseman or using him as a screen. Most players can't shoot as forcefully or accurately with the puck close to them, but he can because of the power in his wrists and hands. The 6'2", 205-pound Semin has broad palms and long fingers; Laich calls them "gorilla hands." Unlike a conventional slap shot or wrister, Semin's shot is "loaded" with a hitch of the wrists, and he almost slingshots the puck, like a jai alai player unleashing the pelota. The shaft on his Bauer stick is an extra rigid 112 flex—Ovechkin plays with a whippy 80 flex—but Semin's stevedore strength creates the torque that has produced what Kolzig says is the best shot he has seen in his 17 NHL seasons.
"When you see a kid who has more talent than the reigning MVP, you want to see more," Kolzig says of the 13th player taken in the 2002 draft. "He's teasing you. The frustrating thing is he hasn't gotten everything out of his talent. He doesn't have the intangibles Ovie has. With Ovie there's accountability. He's had a bad groin and played through it. Ovie realizes what he has to live up to. So far [Semin] just puts up points."
Of course, he is putting up plenty of them. But other aspects are almost as impressive: his +17 rating (first in the NHL), a reversal of his pitiful --18 last year, and his responsible play on the penalty kill now that Boudreau trusts him in that role. While benefits accrue from skating on Alex the First's line—"Playing with Ovechkin makes him that much better," Carolina right wing Scott Walker says—Semin, who has also played on Fedorov's line, has scored nine of his goals this season without Ovechkin on the ice. And just after his Crosby comments appeared online and set NHL tongues wagging, Semin rolled off 11 points in five games.
The Other Alex, in other words, has put up after he should have shut up.